Inspired by antique photographs, these five stunning short stories capture the surprising intersections of love and friendship that alter life's journeys. In “Angels in Italy,” childhood friends, separated by circumstance, learn the enduring power of a first love. “Sister Flora's First Day of Freedom” introduces us to a young nun who makes a difficult decision to leave the sisterhood and finds delightful new riches in the big city of Edinburgh. The enchanting “Dear Ventriloquist” tells of a mishap at a Canadian circus that sparks unexpected magic between a gifted puppeteer and a dapper lion tamer. Changing a tire changes the life of a young Irish teacher in “The Woman with the Beautiful Car,” and a young New Zealander learns what matters in life from his grandfather, a WWII veteran, in “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness.” These charming and poignant stories are a testament to the power of human connection and brim with a grace and humor that could only come from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith.
(With black-and-white photographs throughout.)
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom
They did their best to be generous to Sister Flora when she left the convent, but the dresses they gave her left something to be desired. A great deal, in fact, according to some.
“Well!” muttered one of the laywomen who helped with the vegetable garden. “Did you see the outfits they gave her? You wouldn’t think it was 1961—more like 1931!”
She was right about the dresses, of which there were two. Both had been donated to the convent by the women’s guild at the local church, and both were irretrievably dull. One was made of beige bombazine, the other of a rough wool fabric of the sort that a rural schoolmistress might have worn decades earlier. Both had been retrieved from somebody’s wardrobe, both had a faint odour of camphor, although neither appeared to have suffered any moth damage.
They also gave her an unbecoming grey cardigan, a plain, full-length coat, and a pair of shoes that was slightly too small. The shoes, at least, were new, although they, too, were far from fashionable. Then there was a small suitcase, a sponge bag of toiletries, and an envelope containing fifteen pounds.
“We might have entertained the possibility of giving you a slightly larger sum,” said the Mother Superior, “but since you are going to be living with your aunt you will have no rent to pay, and I imagine your aunt, being the pious woman she is, will provide necessities.”
Flora smiled. “I don’t really deserve anything,” she said. “I brought nothing with me when I came ten years ago, and I don’t think I should leave with anything.”
“That’s a very good attitude,” the Mother Superior continued. “Mind you, I gather that money is not going to be a problem. This sum is purely to tide you over until such time as your . . . your arrangements are in place.”
“I have been most fortunate,” she said. “I am not intending to forget that, Mother.”
“No,” said the Mother Superior. “I don’t imagine you will. You always had a very good disposition, you know. I’m sorry that one or two people have been passing . . . well, what can only be described as uncharitable remarks.” She looked away, her lips pursed in disapproval. “I heard somebody say they thought that money had interfered with God’s plan for you.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” said Flora.
“Neither do I,” said the Mother Superior. “And indeed I imagine there are circumstances that suggest that God’s plan for certain people is that they should have money. After all, if nobody had any money, then who would give to the Holy Church?”
“Precisely,” said Flora.
The Mother Superior looked out of the window. “I was very reassured to hear that you hadn’t lost your faith. That was a great comfort to me, you know.”
“I haven’t lost it,” said Flora. “It’s just that . . . oh, I suppose it’s just that I decided that I’m not cut out for the religious life. I’ve enjoyed it well enough, but I feel that somehow life is passing me by.”
“Quite understandable, my child,” said the Mother Superior.
“And I thought that I really had to make a decision one way or the other. So I decided that I would go out into the world. It just seemed the right thing for me to do.”
“We all understand,” said the Mother Superior. “I under-stand; poor Sister Frances understands—just; and Father Sullivan understands. You’ll be happy doing God’s work in the wider world—whatever that happens to be.”
“I hope so.”
“And, of course,” continued the Mother Superior, “you will be a wealthy woman.”
Sister Flora lowered her eyes. “I didn’t reach the decision because of that,” she said. “I had already decided.”
“Oh, I know that,” said the Mother Superior. “I wasn’t for a moment suggesting post hoc, propter hoc. But being wealthy will be . . . well, rather nice, don’t you think?”
It was difficult for her to remember when it dawned on her that she had a vocation. Some people spoke of a moment of revelation—a moment of certainty—the meaning of which was completely clear. One of the younger sisters had said that it had come to her one morning when she got out of bed and opened the window. “There was a particular sort of light,” she said. “It filled the sky, and I knew at once that I was being called.” Another said that it had come to her in a dream, when she had seen the Virgin herself, who had beckoned her. That, she said, was a sign that would only come once in a lifetime and should not be taken lightly, nor questioned.
It had been different for Flora. She had never had a sense of controlling her own future, of making decisions about what she would do—this, it seemed to her, had been done for her by others. It was not that anybody imposed their will on her; it was more gentle than that. There were suggestions that she had been thinking of a religious life all along; that it was something for which she had somehow shown an aptitude. And then, just as she was about to leave school, there had been that fateful conversation with Sister Angela, a particularly sympathetic nun, who had said, “There will always be a place for you in the Order, you know.” And she had been flattered that she should be thought of in this way.
At university she had become involved in the Catholic chaplaincy, and again assumptions were made. “It’s easy for you,” one of her friends had said. “You’re obviously going to end up in the Church. You don’t have to look for something.”
Flora had simply said, “No, I suppose I don’t.” And that, she thought, was the moment at which the decision—if one could call it that—was made. She finished her degree, and took a year’s teaching diploma after that before entering the convent as a novice. They were delighted that she had joined them; they ran a school and there was a shortage of nuns with recent, recognised teaching qualifications. A newly minted graduate of the University of Glasgow—in mathematics, of all things—was exactly the sort of young woman the convent wanted.
Her parents were proud of her. They were now elderly, and she was their only child. Any thoughts they had about losing the daughter who might care for them in their old age were eclipsed by their pleasure in having provided the Church, which was at the core of their lives, with such a charming servant.
Her father died a month after she took her final vows, and her mother survived him by barely a year. Thereafter her only family was her aunt and uncle, a childless couple, who lived in a small town on the Clyde estuary. This uncle had been a successful hotelier and caterer, who had made wise investments in land on the outskirts of the city. Flora was aware that he was well off, but it had never occurred to her that he would direct that a large part of his estate was to go to her. She had met the lawyer at his funeral, a thin man with a nasal voice, who had been introduced to her by her aunt at the funeral tea.
“I was always a great admirer of your uncle,” said the lawyer. “His good works were legion, you know.”
She smiled. “He will be missed,” she said.
The lawyer adjusted his tie. “I will need to speak to you at some point,” he said. “Not here, of course—this isn’t really the moment. But you are, you may know, his heir.”
She looked at him blankly. “But my aunt?”
“She is very well provided for already,” said the lawyer. “You’re what we call the residuary beneficiary, and that will involve a substantial amount. A very substantial amount.”
Table of Contents
Author’s Note ix
Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom 3
Angels in Italy 51
Dear Ventriloquist 109
The Woman with the Beautiful Car 159
He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness 193
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith. This new book is a collection of thematically linked short stories on the subject of love, each one inspired by an intriguing old photograph.
1. In the first story, “Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom,” Flora decides, “I am my own person . . . I am entitled to look for God in this world in the way I choose to do” (p. 16-17). Why does she feel the need to leave the convent, and how does she choose to look for God once she leaves?
2. What do you think Flora will decide to do at the end of the first story?
3. Discuss the title of “Angels in Italy.” Why do you think the author chose this title? What does it mean in the context of the story?
4. A character in “Angels in Italy” says, “We all have something to be sorry about. Every one of us. And we often don’t have the chance to say anything . . . Then it’s too late” (p. 94). Who is sorry in this story and why? Is this sentiment justified? Have you experienced this sentiment at any point in your life?
5. Do you agree with the narrator of “Dear Ventriloquist” that “we can live with a minor fault-line in the heart—most of us do, in one way or another” (p. 106)? How does this statement apply to the story?
6. What is Ronald O’Carroll’s predicament in “The Woman with the Beautiful Car”? Do you agree with his decision to stay in his home village, or do you think he should have left for the city (like Flora in the first story)?
7. Do you think Ronald acted unethically when he put the tacks on the road, or does the end—or the good intention—justify the means?
8. Discuss the relationships between fathers and sons in the final story, “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness.”
9. The narrator in “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness” says of David, “He wanted to believe in tenderness, in kindness, but now, perhaps, it was too late. Something had been unleashed that would make it impossible to go back to what had been before” (p. 211). What do you think has been unleashed? How does David attempt to make a life for himself afterward?
10. At the end of his life, David calls himself “lucky” to have had a home he was proud of, to have fought in a war for a worthwhile cause, and to have had family members to love (p. 227). Would you agree that his life was a fortunate one?
11. Pain and tragedy persist alongside love and happiness in the stories. What tragedy, trauma, or difficult experience does each character go through and overcome in the book? Are some of the tragedies more devastating than others, or are they all equally meaningful in their own way?
12. Discuss the significance of chance encounters and unexpected events in this collection. How does this theme figure in each of the five stories? Can an undesirable surprise ultimately lead to desirable results or vice versa?
13. The stories McCall Smith creates about these photographs are, of course, the product of one author’s imagination. What stories do the photographs in Chance Developments evoke for you?
14. How does Chance Developments compare to other works by Alexander McCall Smith?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Chance Developments is a collection of five short stories by popular British author, Alexander McCall Smith. Who of us doesn’t enjoy a bit of people watching on occasion? To watch strangers and imagine what their story might be? This book is Alexander McCall Smith’s version of people watching: five old black-and-white photographs, about which nothing is known, are the inspiration for these stories. McCall Smith creates a story about the subjects of the photographs, making them ordinary people in ordinary, or sometimes not-so-ordinary, situations. Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom: a nun in Scotland, the recipient of a legacy, leaves the convent, her home of ten years, with a specific goal in mind. Angels in Italy: an artist who regrets his behaviour as a young man learns something surprising when reunited with a friend from his youth. Dear Ventriloquist: a young circus performer’s fortune-telling proves to be unexpectedly accurate. The Woman with the Beautiful Car: a young man acts in an uncharacteristic way to gain the attention of a lady. He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness: an old man counts his blessings despite a less-than-ideal life. Across a range of diverse settings, McCall Smith gives the reader stories with happiness, heartache, joy and sorrow; some will produce a lump in the throat, others, a smile, a chuckle or a laugh. Five unexpected love stories that will delight McCall Smith fans.